M.T.A. Officials Fiddle While the World Burns

Osama bin Laden has never articulated the grim calculus of terrorism as pithily as an anonymous spokesperson for the Irish

Osama bin Laden has never articulated the grim calculus of terrorism as pithily as an anonymous spokesperson for the Irish Republican Army did more than 20 years ago.

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Hours after it had narrowly failed to assassinate British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a hotel bombing, the guerrilla group issued a personal message addressed to its target: “Today we were unlucky. But remember: we only have to be lucky once. You will have to be lucky always.”

The rule of thumb that the Irish group identified—when it comes to violence, the element of surprise always favors the attacker—holds true across all continents, religions, ideologies and eras.

Seen through this prism, it is astounding that New York has not been attacked again since Sept. 11, 2001. Law-enforcement agencies have done a great job in foiling several plots. But, as the I.R.A. understood, law enforcement has to be lucky—and good—every time. Someone intent on mayhem and murder needs to be lucky only once.

This is an appalling reality to have to face. Perhaps because of that very fact, the attitudes of our politicians toward anti-terrorism strategy are often febrile and inconsistent.

New York’s representatives reacted with fury—and rightly so—when the Department of Homeland Security cut $83 million from the city’s federal anti-terror funding in May. But why is a similar level of rage not directed at organizations that have sufficient money to address huge security vulnerabilities, yet fail to do so?

One example: Terrible events in London, Madrid and, most recently, Mumbai have demonstrated the degree to which mass-transit systems present alluring targets for terrorists.

The author Ron Suskind has claimed that an Al Qaeda plot to release cyanide in the New York subway system came within 45 days of being executed in 2003.

The threat could hardly be clearer if Mr. bin Laden were to pop up in front of a subway map in his next video. Yet the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been woefully sluggish in its response.

Last week, the Daily News reported that it will be August 2008 before the last of the surveillance cameras the M.T.A. decided to install last year are operational.

A report released back in March by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi found that the M.T.A. had fallen more than a year behind schedule in making major security upgrades. Only one of five supposedly “high-priority” projects had been completed on time.

Last year, it was revealed that only $30 million of the $600 million the M.T.A. had “committed” to security improvements back in 2002 had actually been spent.

New Yorkers do not need official reports or newspaper revelations to alert them to the M.T.A.’s ineptitude, of course. To take just one instance, everyone knows that the public-address systems in many subway stations are about as useful as a snorkel in a desert.

That may be only a minor irritation in normal circumstances. But it is a failing that will be horribly exposed on the day when effective communication is needed to ease panic or organize a subway evacuation.

These weaknesses are part of a broader picture. Almost five years on from Sept. 11, official thinking on terrorism is too often fragmentary and lacking in common sense.

We have spent enormous resources investigating whether intelligence agencies missed a shred of evidence that could have helped prevent the 9/11 attacks. But it is widely known that the nation’s ports are hopelessly vulnerable, and that not nearly enough is being done to secure them.

Many members of Congress argue that the threat of terrorist attacks is sufficiently serious to justify a massive expansion of government surveillance. But the same threat is apparently not serious enough to require those same representatives to abandon the politics of the pork barrel when it comes to apportioning security spending.

In this city, the M.T.A. approved a complex project to bolster underwater tunnels back in March. But the same month, Representative Anthony Weiner pointed out that that the M.T.A. hadn’t taken the simple action of replacing its current trashcans with bombproof models.

The law of averages strongly suggests that there will be more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil sooner or later. Imagine that one takes place in New York tomorrow.

Will we be able to look back and feel that everything possible had been done to prevent it and to minimize its effects?

Hardly. Instead, we will finally acknowledge—too late, of course—that the bureaucratic dawdling of organizations like the M.T.A. amounts to criminal negligence.

M.T.A. Officials Fiddle  While the World Burns